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Third draft of the Cambodian Associations & NGO law out

Last week, the Cambodian government released a third draft of the Associations & NGO law. LICADHO’s commentary on this draft of the law can be accessed here. The International Centre for Not For Profit Law (ICNL) has also released a brief analysis available here. In summary, the key issue – the fact that it makes registration mandatory – remains.

LICADHO makes the following recommendations:

• Registration must be voluntary. The law’s mandatory registration provisions violate Cambodia’s own Constitution, international norms, and multiple international conventions which Cambodia has ratified. It also puts the NGO Law in direct conflict with several other Cambodian laws, creating a confused, impossible-to- navigate legal landscape for all groups wishing to assemble or undertake a broad array of activities in Cambodia.

• The law should specify that organizations and associations are temporarily authorized to operate while their registration applications are pending.

• The government must articulate a justification for the law, particularly in light of Cambodia’s 2007 Civil Code. The current stated purposes in Article 2 are entirely unsatisfactory: “giving” rights that Cambodians already possess, and providing opportunities that already exist.9 Stating a coherent justification will allow Cambodia’s legislators the ability to assess the stated purpose of the law and determine whether it is merited or whether modifications are warranted.

The law has moved to the Council of Ministers, which in Cambodia is the final stage of review before a law moves to the National Assembly for ‘debate’ (Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party has a majority and it is highly unlikely that the debate would lead to the necessary amendments, or anything else fruitful). For more updates on the law, “like” the Oppose the Cambodian NGO & Associations Law page.

Cambodia’s troubling Associations & NGO law

Siena AnstisCivil society organizations in Cambodia, including LICADHO, continue to fight against the imminent passage of a repressive Associations & NGO Law.  The first draft of the law, released in December 2010, was condemned by the international community “as an assault on Cambodians’ right to freedom of association, assembly and expression.”

The second draft of the law, released on March 24, is no improvement. Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, describes some of the fundamental difficulties posed by the law in her recent article in the Guardian (UK):

Among other things, the law requires all NGOs and associations to comply with burdensome registration procedures, and outlaws those that don’t. Meanwhile, it gives authorities unbounded discretion to approve registration applications, with few substantive guidelines to steer their decisions. There is no appeals process if registration is denied.

The draft is also sloppy – one example being its apparently unlimited scope. It’s unclear whether this aspect was intentional, but the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) concluded that the law would require “every group of individuals who gather together with a differing level of frequency and perform the broadest variety of imaginable activities, from trekking and football fans, to chess and silk-weaving groups” to register. Failing to do so would be a violation of the law. (So would, apparently, founding an NGO or association without the required number of Cambodian citizen “founding members” required by the law – three and 11, respectively).

The way the law is drafted will make it easy for the government to target and shut down NGOs working on politically sensitive issues (such as, for example, land grabbing). The law will also impair the work of international organizations in Cambodia, as well as the effective disbursement of development aid funding. Without politically independent grassroots organizations operating in Cambodia, donor bodies will be deprived of important informants and partners in the development process.

The law, at first, may seem like a rather dry issue. However, it’s passing could fundamentally change the scene for civil society organizations in Cambodia. These organizations provide a necessary challenge to government action and open a space for citizens – who may feel at risk when dealing directly with government – to express themselves. They also provide important jobs that encourage young people to contribute to their communities, participate in a process of democratic development and become responsible citizens. Organizations like LICADHO protect and empower individuals who speak out against their governments.

It is also important for Canadians to pay attention. CIDA invested $17.03 million into Cambodia in 2010. Without impartial organizations to work with, some of CIDA’s main mandates – such as assisting in land reform – will be unattainable. Addressing such a politicized issue requires an independent civil society.

It should also be self-evident by now that civil society is key to democratic development. I think Hillary Clinton made a realistic assessment of the importance of civil society in a speech at the meeting of Community of Democracies in Krakow, Poland in July 2010:

[…] most countries do have a collection of activists, organizations, congregations, writers, and reporters that work through peaceful means to encourage governments to do better, to do better by their own people. Not all of these organizations or individuals are equally effective, of course. And they do represent a broad range of opinions. And, having been both in an NGO and led NGOs and been in government, I know that it’s sometimes tough to deal with NGOs when you are in the government.

But it doesn’t matter whether the goal is better laws or lower crime or cleaner air or social justice or consumer protection or entrepreneurship and innovation, societies move forward when the citizens that make up these groups are empowered to transform common interests into common actions that serve the common good (emphasis added).

Civil society organizations are helping Cambodians rebuild their nation. Without the pressure these organizations put on the government to respect human rights, the protection they offer to individuals who perform that same function, and the information they provide to development bodies, Cambodians will largely be facing this challenge alone. As Clinton points out, the outcome may be tragic:

[…] along with well-functioning markets and responsible, accountable government, progress in the 21st century depends on the ability of individuals to coalesce around shared goals, and harness the power of their convictions. But when governments crack down on the right of citizens to work together, as they have throughout history, societies fall into stagnation and decay.

Donors are central to preventing the passage of the law. “Continued opposition from western donors and international NGOs is key to preserving Cambodia’s independent civil society. That opposition must be unified, firm, and tied to the two things the government cares about – money and legitimacy,” writes Pilorge. Pressure from individuals and civil society organizations in other countries is also key. Please visit the “Oppose the Cambodian NGO & Associations Law” Facebook Page to learn more about the law.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

An uncertain future for Rwandese refugees in Uganda

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

Last Wednesday afternoon, cell phones started ringing throughout RLP. In hushed, urgent tones, reports began circulating among refugees and staff: Rwandese asylum seekers were being forcibly repatriated from Nakivale refugee settlement in Western Uganda. Interpreters were quickly reassigned from consultations and testimony taking, as RLP staff and volunteers scrambled to figure out what was going on in Uganda’s largest refugee settlement, located several hours from Kampala.

Within hours, reports were confirmed: dozens of Rwandese asylum seekers (whose claims for refugee status had been rejected in a recent sitting of Uganda’s Refugee Eligibility Committee (REC)) were lured to basecamp with promises of food, and claims that their status rejection would be reconsidered. There, rejected asylum seekers were herded onto lorries by Ugandan soldiers. As reality began to set in and chaos erupted (people running in all directions), soldiers fired shots into the air, people were injured, and families separated. At least five lorries filled with asylum seekers left Nakivale settlement for the Ugandan-Rwandan border. [See RLP/IRRI joint press release].

As in Canada, Uganda’s Citizenship and Immigration Act provides for a review process for rejections of asylum seekers’ claims. The Act also provides for procedural safeguards for the deportation of those who have exhausted all avenues for appeal. These forcible removals thus violate Uganda’s own refugee law, not to mention the principle of non-refoulement in international law.

The removals are also part of a troubling political landscape that Rwandese asylum seekers and refugees in Uganda are currently facing… On which more later!

*Internship undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Following Up: More Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

In my last post, I mentioned the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists and 57 people in total were killed for registering their dissent against the Ampatuan family. The Ampatuans had maintained a stranglehold on political power in Maguindanao through corruption and intimidation.

The prosecution’s strongest witness in the ensuing trial has recently been gunned down. It’s rumoured that the Ampatuans are involved. See the news links below:

The Filipino Culture of Impunity

chris_maughnBy Christopher Maughan

Today I was finally going to publish my introductory post, the one that says “here I am in the Philippines and this is what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. Working at the Ateneo Human Rights Center has been an enriching experience, I’m learning a lot, and I think I’m finally adapting to the culture…”

All of that is true. But today I want to write about something else: three local journalists killed in less than a week, just for speaking their minds.

Gunned down in public. Even though such killings have happened many times before, I can’t believe the news.

I didn’t know what to say after the first two journalists were killed, hence the absence of a blog post on the subject. I was shocked. I still am, especially now that a third journalist has died, but I feel an obligation to write something on the subject to draw people’s attention to the news since it hasn’t been making headlines in Canada.

The first killing happened five days ago. Desidario Camangyan, a radio reporter who had criticized the government for turning a blind eye to illegal logging practices, was shot while hosting an amateur singing contest. His wife and son were in the audience.

Less than 24 hours later, Joselito Agustin, another radio broadcaster, was shot and killed while on his way home from work. Like Camangyan, Agustin had spoken out against government corruption.

This weekend, Nestor Bedolido, a newspaper reporter, was shot and killed as he was buying cigarettes from a street vendor. Belodido was supposedly behind a number of scathing exposes written about an allegedly corrupt politician in Davao del Sur.

So far no one has been arrested and all but one of the suspects are unidentified.

The killings bring the number of journalists killed in the Philippines to 107 – and that’s just in the last nine years, since President Gloria Arroyo took power in 2001. Since the inception of democracy in 1986, 140 have been killed in total.

Before posting some news links and a few thoughts, I should mention that all of this comes only seven months after the Maguindanao Massacre, in which 32 journalists lost their lives for taking political action, for merely deigning to defy a local “politician-warlord” who had maintained a stranglehold on power through corruption and intimidation.

News links are below (links are posted first; my thoughts are underneath), with a Wikipedia entry on the Massacre that links to stories published in late 2009. About a week and a half ago, an activist came into our office with pictures of the victims of Maguindanao – they were by far the most shocking images I have ever seen.

So that’s the news. Here are some of my thoughts.

First of all, given the circumstances, there’s little doubt that these killings are politically motivated. The two most recent ones meet the profile of the typical Filipino political killing: a gunman walks up to the victim in the middle of the street, fires, and rides away on the back of a motorcycle that’s waiting nearby. Too many journalists, lawyers and activists have been killed this way, usually after expressing criticism of the government or left-wing political views. Too few of the men and women behind these killings have been brought to justice – there have only been a handful of convictions.

Second, it’s disheartening that even after a UN Special Rapporteur report on extrajudicial (that is, illegal and political) killings in the Philippines, a local commission-of-inquiry report on the matter, the creation of a national Commission on Human Rights, and the creation of a national police task force, extrajudicial killings continue to take place – and the perpetrators seem as bold as ever. Some of the gunmen don’t even hide their faces – a telling sign that they know they can count on a culture of impunity.

Like the Maguindanao Massacre, I guess this series of killings reflects what is often the reality of human rights legal work – you can set up all the commissions and send all the rapporteurs you want, you can write reports, you can call people out in the press, but things will not change overnight. That said, there are signs that extrajudicial killings generally are tapering off – there are fewer per year now than there were in 2006, when there were 209 in total. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is slow and incremental change.

This week, though, it feels like change cannot come soon enough.

I want to end on a positive note. The Ateneo Human Rights Center is doing a lot to help prevent extrajudicial killings and give prosecutors and investigators the tools they need to obtain convictions. In addition to the academic research I’m doing for the Center, I’m involved in two really interesting projects to this end. First, I’m involved in the planning of a national public awareness campaign; staff from the Center will be holding public forums on extrajudicial killings at over 60 locations all across the country. Second, I’m helping with the creation of Multi-Sectoral Quick Reaction Teams, which are locally-based collectives of legal and human rights experts who come together to provide support to victims when an extralegal killing takes place.

I feel extremely privileged to be able to help out with these initiatives. Hopefully, along with this week’s bad news, they’ll get people thinking about how to dismantle the infrastructure of impunity that allows violations of rights to life and free expression to keep happening.

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